Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pretend You're Actually Alive by Leigh Ledare

In order to celebrate Mother's Day appropriately here is a mental picture I would like to pass along; you are 22 years old and you are standing at the foot of your mother's bed with a camera-- she lays in front of you in black see-through underwear with opaque black hearts stitched across the front that barely concealed her breasts -- she is looking directly into your eyes while her thumb has hooked the crotch of her panties and she pulls them aside revealing her shaved genitalia. And just as she gives you a come-hither look -- you snap a photograph.

Is anyone still reading? Okay I promise I won't paint any more mental pictures but I do want to draw attention to the tension you now feel in your shoulders and the large sensation of unease with your thoughts because if you choose to look through Leigh Ledare's book Pretend You're Actually Alive just published by PPP Editions that is what you will have in store.

Pretend You're Actually Alive is a disturbingly honest account of the relationship between mother and son as the typical family structure breaks down and a new one emerges that challenges all convention. Ledare's mother Tina Peterson is a former ballerina who now works professionally as a stripper and the man she is described as 'dating' is 22 years old -- the same age as her son Leigh.

Through photographs, type written and hand corrected pages of text, ephemera and video stills, Leigh paints a portrait of his mother as a fading beauty who desperately tries to renew a youthful image by way of adopting a hyper sexualized persona. Leigh in some text early on in the book reveals his curiosity toward his mother's sexuality began when he was around 11 when he would watch her and her friends exercising in tights. A few pages later a handwritten note is reproduced entitled "Girls I Wanted To Do" in which he adds "my mom" as the third person on the list (the bronze medal?) after Christie Brinkley but before Shelley Duvall. Instead of incestuously revisiting from where he once entered the world, he photographs her engaged in sex with her boyfriend and playing a pornstar in front of his camera. It would all get so overwhelmingly boring if it only struck the note of ‘here is my mother as an open sexual being,’ but it is woven into the larger picture of Leigh's own relationship with his wife and his brother's dysfunctional relationship with drugs.

This work was shot over a period of time (7 or 8 years?) and what is remarkable is Leigh's mother transforms her look from photo to photo and there is a slight sense of being unsure that you are looking at the same woman throughout the course of the book. In one she looks like a young bored woman listening to her boyfriend fumble through some guitar chords and in another she dons a jet black wig and looks like a severe headmistress. In others she looks waxen and dead and wears the milage of her life in her eyes ('like she's in a Goya painting being attacked by demons') and in others surprisingly youthful and exuberant. On the last page, she and Leigh appear in photobooth strips and they hug and peck with innocent mother and son affection until a last frame within which they look to be in a full open mouth kiss of young lovers. Out of all of the 16 photographs on that page, the open mouth kiss photo is the only one that does not seem to be played for the photobooth lens. It is, for the viewer, a moment of "proof" that has been hinted at but denied throughout most of the book.

Pretend You're Actually Alive is not solely an Oedipal tale (it gets better the faster you get over that fact) but an impressive family album of sorts where each page affirms that all of the skeletons are out of the closet. In fact, I take exception with the title of the book as for me it seems to be alluding to Tina's down-sliding life when actually just about everything in this book gives the impression that everyone involved is teaming with life and sensations no matter how severe or ill affecting. So why is it called Pretend You're Actually Alive? Anyone can see that this book vibrates with beating hearts and exposed nerve endings.

Ledare's photography is in a personal journalistic style of Larry Clark or Nan Goldin and has the sense of an immediate reaction with casual framing and a lesser concern towards the technical with flash used directly on the camera. This is one aspect that bothers me slightly as it seems many projects of this sort seem to contain mediocre photography that is stitched together to form an interesting narative, whereas I would love to see great photography stitched together to form that same story. What "great" photography is from me goes well beyond the subject alone. That being said, Ledare has accomplished something with Pretend You're Actually Alive that Larry Clark has not since Teenage Lust.

My only real serious problem with this softcover book is with its cost. Granted it is 240 pages but with a retail price of $80 it is far too expensive for what it is. I like the design -- the printing is decent (done in Massachusetts) and the paper is good but this should cost around $40. The publisher has chosen to house it in a cheap cardboard slipcase that is too big for the book and thus makes a rather wonky companion to an otherwise fine design. (Was the addition of this crappy slipcase -- that probably cost an extra $1.50 each unit -- simply a ploy to try to justify charging an extra $40 for the whole package?) To add insult to injury, I have heard that the pricing will increase after a certain amount of the 1000 copies are sold.

This is a book that will disturb many as it is common for son and daughters to avoid addressing their parent's sexuality, but remember that there is always therapy to get over any trauma should this book unlock any repressed feelings. That is, until the therapist asks with that knowing look, "Now...tell me about your mother."